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Nagi: Will Iran follow in the footsteps of Egypt?

February 21, 2011

As the dust starts to settle following the Egyptian Revolution, talk has quickly turned to which Middle Eastern autocracy will be the next to fall to the demands of domestic protests for more democratic government.

Mazen Nagi

Mazen Nagi

Many have offered that Iran’s Green Movement of 2009 has been reawakened by events in Egypt, which have, ironically, been loudly applauded by the Iranian government and state media. But is it reasonable to assume that the Iranian government will collapse Egyptian-style under the weight of protests?

While the demands of Iranian demonstrators are nearly identical to those that Egyptians have voiced, Iran’s government is an altogether different animal.

The Egyptian government was essentially devoid of ideology in a practical, day-to-day sense. Thus, at its core, the government was an institutionalized patron-client system. It functioned mainly to facilitate kleptocracy by steering the vast bulk of wealth to the political and societal elite, while keeping the masses at bay.

As a result, few people in Egypt’s political establishment are inclined to defend the regime in an ideologically zealous manner. The elites’ defense of the regime was largely motivated by protecting individual wealth, and covering up its crimes. In practice, little ideology is needed for this system to continuously function and sustain itself.

The Iranian system, on the other hand, is undergirded by a strong religious ideology, enforced by supporters that are zealous in nature.

While this is not to say that Iranian leaders are not worried about protecting their positions and power, there is a religious ideology that is ingrained in the members of the various branches of the security services, including those used for crowd control: the Revolutionary Guard and the Basiij militia.

Indeed these two institutions recruit and rely on religiously dogmatic individuals to stock their ranks. They will use all means at their disposal to preserve the current political order. This is simply an element that was absent in Egyptian politics.

So what then are the implications for Iranians of this basic difference between the governments? The most immediate and visible implication of this defense of the system by zealots is the rapid resort to and much higher level of violence with which protest movements, and demonstrations in general, have been met.

While government-perpetrated violence may eventually be the issue that pushes Iran ultimately to successful revolution, such as happened with the Shah in the late 1970s, its immediate effect oftentimes is to slow down opposition until it is able to adapt to the repression of the state. Violent repression also can push anti-government movements underground where they are more difficult to monitor, such as has happened with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, thereby making events even more difficult to predict.

So while the Iranian people have very similar grievances to Egyptians, the path of any Iranian revolution is likely to be much more violently contested, requiring a much longer sustained effort to overturn the current religiously infused political system.

The Voices section of NIU Today features opinions and perspectives from across campus. Mazen Nagi is an Egyptian-American and graduate of American University in Cairo, Egypt. He is an academic adviser at NIU, where he is working toward his doctoral degree in political science. He teaches courses in international relations and Middle East politics.